The True Cost of Multi-tasking

Picture of a sunset over water
My view last week “off the grid”

I spent last week “off the grid” on an island in Lake Michigan.  No internet, no email, no cell phones. It was different, interesting, and strange. I was actually glad to get back to the grid. But the experience made me think. The major difference for me was that I stopped “multi-tasking”.

Task switching, not multi-tasking —  A while ago I wrote a post about multi-tasking, and the research at Stanford that shows that even younger people aren’t good at multi-tasking.  But the term multi-tasking is actually a misnomer. People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. Instead we switch tasks. So the term that is used in the research is “task switching”.

Task switching is “expensive” — There has been a lot of research on task switching. Here’s what we know from the research:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.
  • Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.
Does having more communication channels encourage task switching? When I was off the grid I found that I started doing one task at a time. I would do one thing for several minutes, and in many cases several hours. I believe that being online encourages task switching. When you can go from email to chat to texting to twitter to phone to facebook you switch tasks more. When I was off the grid all my channels were gone. So instead I spent time with one task and with one program. One day I worked in IPhoto for 3 hours straight.
Additional costs– One last insight from my week off the grid: I was much less agitated. It’s my hypothesis that task switching not only wastes time and increases errors. Task switching causes fatigue, exhaustion and agitation.
Less task switching = more happiness? — Now that I am back on the grid I wonder if I can break the task switching addiction and improve my mood, energy, happiness, productivity, and error rate? Can I beat the task switching habit?
What do you think? Have you been able to do less task switching? Have you tried?
And for those of you who like to check out the research:

Meyer, D. E., Evans, J. E., Lauber, E. J., Gmeindl, L., Rubinstein, J., Junck, L., & Koeppe, R. A. (1998). The role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for executive cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1998, Vol. 10.

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24 Replies to “The True Cost of Multi-tasking”

  1. I’ve found closing my email program at work is one of the best ways to get a longer stretch of productivity. Turning off the new mail popups and alerts isn’t a bad compromise, but that temptation to switch tabs has a cost. Worth a try, I was amazed at the difference it made in my day.

  2. Switching tasks is a hard habit to break especially when you are constantly interrupted with phone calls, emails, texts all day long while you work and have to switch from one task to the next.

    I set my phone to vibrate and my emails are schedule to come in only once every 30 minutes to allow me to focus on my work instead of constantly being interrupted.

  3. Thats what I like about my Kindle so much – there’s nothing else one can do except reading. On an iPad (with the Kindle app) I start reading and after 2min have to check my mail and my twitter and my blog and so on.

    On a Kindle it’s simply relax and read. This might change with the upcoming new and oh so feature rich Kindle.


    I have been a proponent of “sequential uni-tasking”…doing and focusing on one thing at a time, for ages! And my take on sequential uni-tasking is somewhat like task switching, but applied with more intention, and preferably through to completion. Moving quickly from one task to another while devoting full attention to the task at hand has been my mantra, but I can see that even this habit might better be replaced with a “focus to completion” habit. I must now read more about this, because I’ve been an opponent of “multi-tasking” for years, and have told others that the brain is not capable of holding two simultaneous thoughts at once.

    You’ve given a boost to my day with this fab post, and more research for me to digest. Thanks! Kaarina

  5. I wish I could share this with my managers! we’re an online marketing company, so task switching is a given, but project switching is a lot harder because they are longer and more complex.
    Yet because everything is so time sensitive, or at least that is how it seems, we are required to switch tasks almost constantly.
    We all get a lot more done when we can manage our own time rather than being given new tasks or projects while we are in the middle of working on others. Great study. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Sometimes blogs really hit home – this is one of them. I find that ‘task-switching’ definitely wastes time but more importantly it definitely increases the anxiety and frustration level. I have begun setting time limits, and focusing on one thing at a time. Also adds to feeling of accomplishment.

  7. Thank you for this article. As someone close to 60 years of age I remember life before the internet,cell phones etc.It was easier to focus. However, having raised 4 children,and in practice since 1990 as a therapist, I know task switching first hand! I strive for balance and that involves slowing down and being present in all you do. I’m concerned that although technology is racing ahead, people will need to adjust, and that means learning how in a healthy way.
    Thanks again.

  8. hi susan, excellent post as usual. I agree with you because as we embark on any given task, out is not a linear commitment of out attention. Our attention commitment gathers momentum, as the time progresses continuously and linearly.

    So the argument can be made that the damage to the momentum of the attention, makes a contiguous time dedication a higher quality one, than one peppered intermittently.

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  10. I refer to this general phenomenon as my Internet-induced ADD. I used to be able to read for hours on end; I now find my attention span is much shorter. I miss that ability to lose myself.

    One problem is that much of what I’m interested in reading now is only available in digital format so I’m in the same space with the distractions.

    In a recent exchange on Twitter someone told me about a couple of programs you can utilize to force a break away from the computer: and

    These aim at prevention of repetitive stress injuries by forcing your computer to give you a break every so often, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t work to force you to take a break from the mental stimulus of pop-ups, tabs, and other things that entice us. Again, though, the material I need to focus on is in that same computer, but this might work for others.

    I find my email in-box to be the biggest focus problem of all, since each email takes me to a new project or topic. When they all come into the same visual space they are all equally important until you’ve done the brain work of filtering.

    I’ve now set up a lot of email folders with rules to filter less important items away from the in-box so I don’t have to do that each day. A smaller in-box feels more manageable and I can prioritize more quickly.

    A related post that may interest people is on what’s happened to downtime:

    That led to a post I wrote on biking as downtime. I cherish the tech-free space it creates for my head every day:

    Like meditation (which I also practice), biking helps break the thinking/processing habits I fall into at work. It provides some of my most productive idea time.


  11. It helps when you learn to meditate.

    I suppose there are many kinds of meditation styles, intent and focuses depending on where the guidance comes from.

    There are many things I get accomplished in meditation but the one focus that sits well with this blog article on task-switching is about focusing on the present moment.

    Being off the grid would certainly support being in the present moment, but it is also a practise anyone can do. When we move into future time thinking about that interview we have tomorrow while talking on the phone the conversation will suffers, and yes, errors are made. Going into past time to relive a happy or sad time is the same thing only in the opposite direction on a time line.

    As an exercise you can think of something in past time for a few moments and then come back to the present and ask yourself where, in your head, was your consciousness focusing from?

    Move into future time and play with that upcoming interview for a few moments. Come into present time and ask yourself where, in your head, are you when you go into future time?

    Continue the exercise by putting a clock out in front of you and dial it into the present moment. Stay in the present moment with whatever is going through your thoughts and ask yourself where in your head are you.

    Your point of power is always in the present moment. This is not a lecture because I wander in time as much as anyone, it seems, but having the psychological tools to correct the wayward focus is a blessing.

    It is best if you find out for yourself what part of your head you shift to when visitng past and future time than if I tell you. It will have more meaning for you and I want to avoid any kind of self fulfilling programming.

    We are sooo programmable.

    Enjoy your time!

  12. Great post Susan and thanks for pointing to and summarizing the research on task switching. If you haven’t read it yet, I bet you’d enjoy the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher

    Here’s a review I wrote of it where I talk about my 3 big takeaways: stop multitasking (switching), turn off email for long stretches, and wear headphones/create stimulus shelters.

  13. I find that multi-tasking is fairly easy for me. Starting my career I had no motivation but after jumping into the work force I pound the keys all day effortlessly.

    Usually I just start out with the first task in my head a go to work then as the day goes by I seamlessly ease into one project after the next as they come to mind. I find I get allot more work done this way ;)

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